Friday, 31 July 2015

The Comeback Kid

Friday, 31 July 2015
This series is going a long way to abolish the concept of momentum. England's four day victory in Cardiff, followed by an absolute thrashing at Lord's, and now another England win in a mere three days. Each side see-saws between looking ascendant and lurching into a new crisis, the questions raised about the England team after Lord's now pointing accusingly at Australia. It's difficult to predict what might come next.

The star of the show at Edgbaston has been the England bowlers, and particularly the return of Steven Finn. Steven Finn, the youngest English bowler to fifty test wickets, the man with all the height, pace, bounce, and talent, but whose career has been haunted more by the bad days than the good. Steven Finn, dropped when England's leading wicket taker in Australia in 2010, the lingering feeling that he would always deliver a four ball convincing selectors more than his strike rate. Steven Finn, clipping the bails during delivery so often the ICC intervene with a new rule. Steven Finn, no longer trusted in the closing stages of the first Ashes test in 2013. Steven Finn, deemed unselectable even when England were at their lowest, coaching having failed him. But this time it was the Steven Finn England had been waiting for, dismissing Smith and Clarke in both innings, taking five wickets in the second. Bowling with genuine pace, bounce, and always looking threatening, and just having the knack of picking up a wicket. The odd four ball might still be there, but so is the wicket threat.

But as another piece falls into place in the England puzzle, another one slips out. James Anderson will be missing the next test match with a side strain, and it wouldn't be surprising if he were to miss the rest of the series as well. It's a big blow for England, losing the leader of their attack and to do so with the next match taking place at Trent Bridge, traditionally the swing bowler's heaven. Anderson has too been excellent during this match at Edgbaston - taking 6/47, his best Ashes bowling figures, and going a long way to dismissing Australia for 136 and setting the tone for this match. The bowlers were finally presented with a pitch offering something for them, and Anderson reaped the rewards - movement not necessarily from swing, but from seam. In his absence Mark Wood, rested for this match, will likely return to the team with others such as Footitt, Woakes, and Plunkett also potentially in the mix (fitness allowing for the latter pair). But they'll be big boots to fill.

The careers of Steven Finn and James Anderson also present an interesting parallel. Though different types of bowlers, their careers have followed a similar trajectory. Both burst onto the scene at a young age, special talents that were recognised early on, but both also faced great periods of tinkering with their actions in attempts to solve their supposed flaws. For Anderson it resulted in injury, for Finn a complete loss of confidence - every time something was 'solved', a new issue emerged. And Finn now is a similar age to when the decision was made to stick with Anderson for the long run. I'm always cautious about getting ahead of myself, and especially so with Steven Finn given the constant ups and downs we've had to go through, but England will certainly hoping that the trajectory now will be up, up, and up.

Australia are now looking the team in crisis, and England on the ascendancy. Test cricket is a funny game. But as well as England bowled, the Australian batting was worse. In the first innings, only Rogers offered any resistance, his experience batting in English conditions coming to the fore. Three batsmen were out attempting the leave. In the second innings they put on a better show - Warner scoring a brilliant 77 from 62, Nevill digging in with 59, and Mitchell Starc also making a handy 58. But much of the damage had already been done. Now the axes are being sharpened in Australia's corner: Clarke, though he won't be dropped, is now facing questions about his future beyond the series; and Voges is looking close to the chop. And whilst Johnson has been a constant threat (those deliveries to dismiss Bairstow and Stokes simply exceptional), it might not be a surprise if Siddle were to join him at Trent Bridge, a ground where he should be well suited.

England are on the ascendancy now, needing just the one victory to regain the Ashes, and based on this performance they just might do it. But given how topsy-turvy a series this is proving to be, who knows what will happen next? A lot will matter on how England can cope without Anderson, and on how both teams bat - each side having shown their fragility during the past three matches. For England, Adam Lyth in particular is one who will be under a lot of pressure if picked for Trent Bridge, another two low scores coming in this match with the feeling that time might be running out for him.

England have put the nightmare of Lord's behind them, and have earned themselves the upper hand in this series. But don't bet against there still being a few twists in this tale.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The moment to shine

Tuesday, 28 July 2015
Sometimes you have those players who you feel slightly over-protective towards. These players are often from the county you support, or just players you've really taken to - be it their style of play or their attitude to the game, their character. For me one of those players is Jonny Bairstow, making a return to England's test side this week ahead of his Yorkshire team-mate Gary Ballance.

Bairstow for Yorkshire this year has been simply brilliant. Five centuries, four fifties, an average over 100, and a strike rate around 80 have made him the standout batsman in the first division, and the man Yorkshire have relied upon in their campaign to retain their County Championship title. When called upon by England for the final ODI against New Zealand, he delivered in style, his 83* taking England from a hopeless position at 45/5 to the winners of the match and the series. With England's batting lineup so often finding itself in perilous positions, there can be few surprises that a change was called for, and that Bairstow was the man to get the call. He couldn't do much more to earn another chance.

Yet Bairstow's test and wider international career has, so far, been a frustrating one. Flashes of brilliance - a match-winning 41* on ODI debut, a 95 against South Africa at Lord's - have been just flashes, with Bairstow dipping in and out of the side. Perennially a squad member, perhaps, but not doing enough to hold down a regular place in the side. It's that status of being a squad member that has been so frustrating to watch when such a fan of his. The Champions Trophy in 2013 sticks particularly in the mind: after some good performances with the bat during the preceding tests against New Zealand, it was then around a month with no action before the Ashes series. Surely a young player would be better served playing regular cricket than carrying around the drinks, never making the team? He's not the only player it's happened to, and it won't be the last, but there was a lingering frustration at his subsequent dropping from the team before the end of the series. Bairstow returned during the whitewash, but with the series already gone, there was very little to be gained for anyone coming into the team in such a situation.

Of course, it can't all be a blame game. Though his career has at times been stop-start, he hasn't made the most of his chances when he's had them. Just four half centuries in fourteen games are the obvious proof. When he did have his longest run in the side in 2013, whilst often getting himself in, he passed the fifty mark just twice - and then not going past 70. The technique can be questionable too - first struggling against the short ball, and after overcoming that having difficulties facing those full and straight, not playing with a straight bat when he needs to. It'll never be textbook, a technique that opponents will be able to pick holes in. Yet cricket is a game of character just as much, and when Bairstow is at his best he plays with self belief - and that's something he should have in abundance with his season so far. He's being given another chance to crack test cricket, and England will sure need him to.

Bairstow's not the only man in the side with something to prove. It's an odd thing to be saying about someone who has played 112 test matches and scored 22 centuries, and yet it's very often said about Ian Bell. Bell, a senior figure in the team, supposed to fill the void left by Pietersen, but whose average has only been scraping 30 over the past two years. Bell, a man expected to be at ease at the number three spot but still averages just under 40 in the position. A man equal parts beautiful and frustrating to watch. With Ballance out, Bell is moving up to number three again. It's a spot he should have the talent and the game to succeed in - a more positive player from the outset than Ballance, who can score quickly once settled, but can also get bogged down. But Bell never has quite made it his own. There might be few harder times to take a shift in the order than when out of form and the team has just taken a crushing defeat, but Bell has to take this moment and make his impact felt. His career may even depend upon it.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Defeated and dominated

Monday, 20 July 2015
Well, what a difference a week makes. Last week England were heading to Lord's, full of optimism after an unexpectedly convincing victory over Australia in Cardiff. This week they walk away from Lord's having come crashing down to earth, after suffering a humiliating 405-run defeat and capitulating on the final day. Turnarounds are not often faster or more crushing.

The pitch wasn't to blame for England's shocking batting performance, but it certainly had a big impact on the match. Whether it was a purposeful decision to make the pitch slow to negate Australia's bowlers or not (they may say it wasn't, but the order may well have come from higher up), it was a terrible decision. After England's talk of an attacking 'brand' of cricket, and of playing with self confidence and self belief, this was a move that betrayed that ideal. And in negating Australia's strengths with the ball, they only served to numb their own impact. Stuart Broad in particular bowled superbly in Australia's first innings, picking up four wickets, and England generally didn't bowl badly - there was just very little they could do to stop it being so easy for Australia. Only one wicket fell on the first day, Rogers and Smith racking up the runs with ease; Warner must have been left kicking himself after throwing his wicket away, seeking to dominate Moeen Ali.

Compare this Lord's pitch to the one against New Zealand earlier in the summer, one that offered enough for the bowlers but on which batsmen could still score the runs and at a pace - the two were worlds apart. Here there was no even contest between bat and ball - once Australia won the toss and batted, they found it plain sailing. The pitch for the first test in Cardiff was also poor, with barely any carry and Joe Root at slip sometimes standing so close he needed a helmet; a pitch symptomatic of a system where all five days need to sell out for grounds to survive (though the match still lasted just four). It's not a good excuse, and one that at Lord's is completely invalid. And if they did want to dull Australia's bowlers, with that final innings they obviously failed.

England should have performed better with the bat, and there can be few excuses for such a display on such a pitch. There was an inevitability that something like the first innings would happen - the pressure of such a large score can do funny things, even on a surface like this; and Cook (96) and Stokes (87) at least led a recovery of sorts. But 312 on a pitch like that is still not good enough. The top order let England down again. It's the recurring nightmare of this year, a list that is far too long: 34/3, 52/3, 38/3, 123 all out, 30/4, 74/3, 62/4, 43/4, 73/3, 30/4, 103 all out. The odd failure can be forgiven, but a set of scores like these points to a significant issue to be addressed. Cook, Root, and Stokes won't save England every time. Though I've backed Lyth repeatedly, he'll have to buck up soon or England will be looking for another new opener. Ballance too, despite scoring a crucial 61 in the last test, keeps getting out in the same old ways, and his position is looking increasingly perilous at number three. And for all his experience, Ian Bell has simply not been making the runs, a fifty in the last match barely masking a set of scores that looks like some sort of binary code.

Between now and the next test, there will be a lot of speculation, a lot of knee-jerk responses and calls for change to the England side. They do at least now have some time to regroup, recharge, and recover - time to clear their heads and for the bowlers to rest up. The same eleven that all contributed in some way to such a vibrant victory in Cardiff was the same eleven that were so comprehensively beaten by Australia at Lord's. At Cardiff the cracks were covered up, and a catch that could have made all the difference being dropped and allowing England to take charge. At Lord's the cracks were exposed: the weight of overs over back to back test matches catching up with the bowlers, the fragility of the top order looking even more problematic.

Will there be changes? A bit of a rest may do the bowlers good, though rotation may become a factor later in the series with Finn and Footitt being in the selectors' thoughts. For the very top of the order though, it's hard to find someone really pressing a strong claim. Lyth is likely to be given another chance, only having had four matches so far - but he will need to show better judgement, less flashing at balls he doesn't need to hit. Ballance and Bell are more precariously placed, the possibility also there for a reshuffle of the batting lineup with the weight of Root's runs at number five. Jonny Bairstow is piling on the runs for Yorkshire, and James Taylor has just made a timely century for Nottinghamshire - and a double at that. Neither are proven options at test level, but nobody out there is (Pietersen can be ignored, because it's not going to happen). The selectors won't want to panic, and it would have to be a punt - but it wouldn't really be a surprise if a change was made.

And so, the series is level at 1-1. The defeat may have been crushing - so, so crushing - but everything is still all to play for. There is still a way back from this, and England have fought back from humiliating defeats to win the Ashes before: Lord's, 2005; Headingley, 2009. This match was a disaster, and it can't be glossed over - they are better than this and they let themselves down. This time off could be a blessing, time to recharge and recover and then come back out fighting, and maybe stunting the momentum Australia have gained. But they will simply have to be much better.

Monday, 13 July 2015

First blood: England

Monday, 13 July 2015
It was the most complete performance I've seen England give in a long time. Every man contributed in some way, the bowling in particular being as consistent and disciplined as it's ever been. England outclassed Australia in every respect, playing the attacking 'brand of cricket' that there has been so much talk about, and started consigning the whitewash of 2013/14 firmly into history.

Australia were on top when Joe Root was on nought on the first morning, but after being dropped by Haddin there were few moments where they were again in control. At the end of day one, honours were fairly even - England perhaps marginally ahead - but Moeen Ali helped to take England past 400 the following morning with a fine innings of 77. A major feature of 2013/14 was the contrast between the tails of the two nations - England's being blown away by Mitchell Johnson just as often as Haddin would carry Australia firmly off into the distance. This time England are lucky enough to have a genuine batsman playing at number eight, being swamped with all rounders as they are. Sure, Ali should ultimately be batting higher up the order, but there can't be any real complaints about being able to have a batsmen of that quality in that position. England reached 430 at a run rate of 4.20 an over, led by innings from Root and Ali. For Australia, Mitchell Starc was the most threatening of the bowlers with 5/114; whilst England's tormentor of the past, Mitchell Johnson, went wicketless.

But it was England's display with the ball that most impressed me. Though the Australian batsmen often settled, it was a testament to England's consistency that none went on to make a major score. Rogers led the way with 95 - his seventh consecutive innings over 50, yet not crossing the century mark - and Smith, Clarke, Voges, and Watson were all dismissed in their thirties. Australia still scored at a good rate - 3.63 runs per over, but they never dominated England in the way that New Zealand had at times. Attempts were made with Moeen Ali, and he was indeed the most expensive of England's bowling attack - but he too got his prize with the key wickets of Smith and Clarke. And where Haddin and the tail had caused so many problems in Australia, this time England finished off the job swiftly, Anderson and Broad picking up three wickets with the new ball. Australia were all out for 308 on the morning of day three, England 122 runs ahead.

With the best part of three days left to go in the match and England starting to set a total for Australia, it was a situation where in the past you might have expected a more cautious approach. But England's attacking spirit was maintained. Lyth (37) and Bell (60), a pair dismissed for single figures in the first innings, helped to put England in a more comfortable position after being exposed at 22/2. It wasn't a back-off-and-rebuild job - it was a stand of 51 coming in only 9.4 overs, returning the pressure back to Australia. Joe Root, as ever, chipped in again with 60, with 42 also coming from Ben Stokes. Yet it was a bowler, Mark Wood, whose innings was perhaps the most entertaining of them all - an innings that only lasted 18 balls, but had 32 runs come from it. I've been really impressed recently by Mark Wood - not just as he offers an extra facet to England's attack, but in his attitude and personality. He's just lively, playing the game with a smile on his face and being a bit of a joker, the sort that can keep a team's spirits up as well as at times being able to make something out of nothing with the ball. It's early days but if he can stay fit, he might be able to fill that missing link in England's bowling attack. As it was, he showed he could offer something with the bat as well, helping England to set a target above 400.

And so, on to the final innings. And England again delivered a fantastic display of bowling. Broad was sensational with the new ball in the morning, unlucky just to pick up the one wicket of Chris Rogers in his early spell. Australia looked to be heading safely into lunch at 97/1 - still a tall order to win the match, though not impossible. Cook brought on Moeen Ali - a name cropping up again and again in this match. Ali's previous two overs had been poor, hit for 22 mainly from the bat of David Warner, but he got his man this time. It was right on the stroke of lunch, and Warner was out. The effect on Australia's innings was devastating. After lunch, Broad was back - and soon gone were Smith and Clarke. Wood picked up Voges and Watson - the latter humiliated with another LBW, questions now arising over his test future. Ali was again in the mix, taking Haddin. The lower order - namely Mitchell Johnson - did put up resistance, but it was all too late. Man of the match Joe Root also picked up a couple, and took the final catch off Ali. England had been rampant; Australia dismissed for 242. England were victorious by a margin of 169 runs, and only four days had been used.

Even the optimistic predictions about England's performance in this series failed to predict such a strong win like this. England outperformed their counterparts in all departments: their bowling superior in the conditions - though the pitch was poor, England seemed to adapt better; making the important runs with the bat - Root's first innings century fantastic given the team's position; and Cook really captaining his side well. Importantly, luck was on their side - that drop of Root on the first day changing the match; parried catches caught on the rebound; streaky shots reaching the boundary rather than chopping onto the stumps.

Four matches are still to play. For all the deserved celebrations at the moment, much work is still left to be done. Australia will come back fighting, though changes may be in store - Watson in particular a man whose days look numbered, and Haddin another who may not last the series. Starc may also be a doubt for the next match, having had problems with his ankle (though even the deliveries he sent down on one leg could still be sensational). England can't let up and ease off the pressure, because then the momentum will shift - they have to be in it for the long haul. Five-match series are a marathon - twisting tails of intrigue and suspense, each day a mini-installment of another match. England have drawn the first blood, won the first act - but the finish line is still far off in the distance.

Though if they play anything like this, then maybe it's time to start dreaming.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The little moments

Wednesday, 8 July 2015
Cricket is a sport made up of tiny little moments. Each ball is a single event that on its own can mean very little. A dot ball here, a single there - they're not really moments that mean that much on the face of it. Put them together and then they mean more - the spells and overs that shift the momentum to one team, or even change the course of the match. Yet sometimes it is just a single ball that can have the greatest significance and achieve far more importance than the others. Wickets, obviously count as more. But there are also those that, while apparently innocuous on a scorecard, leave a ripple in their wake that becomes so much greater.

Steve Harmison's first ball of the 2006/7 goes down as just a wide. Nine years later, we still talk about it - any similar ball is compared to it, and that single delivery is transformed as part of the greater narrative of how England went on to lose 5-0. The tone set from the very first ball, etc. One ball becomes the first act of a crushing defeat when really it meant very little.

Dropped catches of course gain extra significance. Here is a chance when a wicket could have been taken, though the scorecard will just show the runs or the dot that came from the delivery. If the batsman is dismissed swiftly afterwards, then there's no worries, little or no cost at all to the fielding side. Nothing appears in the scorebook, and nothing will be remembered. But when they do make the runs, that one little ball becomes so much more. Look at the score and it will show nothing, but the weight of runs can speak for itself. Think of Graeme Smith in 2003 - infamously dropped on eight by Nasser Hussain, he only went on to score 251 more. One ball can make all the difference. 

Joe Root was on nought when Brad Haddin dropped him today - not an easy chance, but one he should have taken. England would have fallen to 43/4, losing three wickets for one run, in deep trouble and with their most in form batsman off in the pavilion. Instead Joe Root made 134, sharing a 153 run partnership with Gary Ballance that took England out of the danger zone. The manner of the runs was just as important as their weight too: in 2013, Root's strike weight against Australia was 40.69; in 2013/14 just 33.27. Today it was 80.72, and one of the fastest centuries in Ashes history. Root has the ability to rack up the runs very quickly, without it always looking like a conscious effort - something he's really shown this summer during both the tests and ODIs against New Zealand, and again today. He's shown that when England have been in tough situations, positivity can be the way out of it, putting the pressure back on the opposition rather than letting himself be bogged down as he was so often in his previous Ashes tests. Australia may be happy, having taken seven wickets on the first day - but England put on their 343 runs at 3.89 an over and should be able to count themselves slightly ahead. The story could easily have been different.

It wasn't all down to Joe Root of course. Gary Ballance has been a man under pressure in recent weeks after poor displays against New Zealand. He didn't always look brilliant today, but he made the runs anyway. His technique was sketchy against the short stuff, and more can be expected throughout the series - but he fought for his 61, and was just as important in helping England's recovery. I've been annoyed at a lot of the criticism he's been facing, having averaged over 50 in his short test career so far. Everyone will go through rough patches in their career, the real test is how they come through it - dropping him at this point would have been very premature. The pressure is still on, given that it wasn't always the most fluent of innings, but it's a start in answering those critics. Stokes (52), Buttler (27), and Moeen Ali (26*) also found the runs and continued the attacking spirit of Root, though Buttler's dismissal in the 86th over would have taken the gloss off the day for England.

So time will tell how important Haddin's drop turns out to be. England may go on to win the match, they may go on to lose, or it could all be a draw - it's far too early to say. The first day of a series can often be the one when the narrative is formed, but can also be swiftly forgotten if the final story turns out to be rather different. But on that first day, that single ball seemed to have the biggest ripple. 

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Pre-Ashes Optimism (Or why England might do better than expected)

Tuesday, 7 July 2015
I'm optimistic ahead of this Ashes series. There, I said it. It might be foolish, looking at the form guides and looking over results from the last 12-18 months, but the optimism has sneaked in there somehow. And even so, it's a fairly pessimistic sort of optimism - I'm not sure I'll see England winning the Ashes this series, I just think they'll do better than expected. That they do have the potential to cause problems for Australia, that it won't be a simple walk in the park. Maybe it could even be a draw.

I know I have a habit of letting myself get sucked in, of getting my hopes up before the main event. I did it before the World Cup, and I certainly did it before the last Ashes (though perhaps with slightly more justification). I really can't help myself. I don't think England are just going to roll over and die in this series, I don't think Australia will find it easy at all. I've seen enough this season, enough to give me that bit of hope and believe that England can compete and spring some upsets. Of course, Australia are the massive favourites, coming in off the back of a World Cup win and having won the last Ashes with a whitewash. They have the number one batsman in the world in their armoury in Steve Smith, a bowler who gives many players nightmares in Mitchell Johnson. They have the players who can get under England's skin, players who will come at them hard, bowlers who can genuinely swing the ball and cause the batsmen heaps of problems, and batsmen who can and will pile on the runs. Australia have won four of their last five test series and England just one - and much of their progress since the last Ashes has been of that 'two steps forward, one step back' variety. Most pre-Ashes predictions have been favouring Australia, and, on the evidence, it's not difficult to see why.

So why am I optimistic about England's chances? Well this time, I think that step forward could be the start of something more. Over the series against New Zealand, there seemed to be this new attitude around the camp - this greater sense of self-belief that we've been waiting for. It was especially visible during the ODI series, albeit with a largely different group of players, but in the tests too there were signs - the approach of Root and Stokes when England fell to 30/4 on that first morning springs straight to mind. Players like these, Jos Buttler being another, are the sort that can really make this happen. Root is the sort who is always busy at the crease and can easily wind up the opposition just existing, whilst Stokes and Buttler have that X-factor, the ability to turn games around and win them by themselves. Leading the bowling attack are proven performers in Anderson and Broad (Broad can be a bit off and on, but against New Zealand, he certainly looked on). Mark Wood, though inexperienced, has really impressed me and is another that has that something about him, an ability at times to make something out of nothing (though it might be best to wrap him in cotton wool, too).

And, importantly, the captain is making runs again. Cook can lack in tactical nous and innovation, but he can make up for that in part by leading with the bat. When he makes stacks and stacks of runs, England often do well, and it will be crucial that he can do this. Lyth has got off to a good start in his test career with a century but has still played just the two tests, and Ballance and Bell have been struggling for runs of late - so Cook really has to lead that top order. With Australia having an off-spinner in Lyon and England having a lot of left handers (including all of that top three), avoiding early inroads will be important and Cook will be a big part of that. And if Lyon can't get at new batsmen, then England should be able to take advantage and press the attack.

There are though many areas that can be improved upon. The thing that has caused perhaps the most frustration in recent months has been the fielding, and specifically the catching. Catches were going down in the slips especially, and at times it seemed like an epidemic - one person drops a catch, and everyone else follows. There have been mistakes with the bat and the ball, errors of judgement that can be accepted from a team where many are still learning on the international stage - but the amount of drops recently has been inexcusable. I'd really like to see Adam Lyth join the slip cordon, having been doing the job brilliantly for Yorkshire, though England seem to be doing it on experience rather than, perhaps, merit. There are also questions over spin too, after a few poor tests for Moeen Ali and with the man waiting in the wings, Adil Rashid, not yet trusted by the captain and without test experience.

England will have to be at their best, their absolute best, to get that sniff. They really need to start the series well and not be walking away from Cardiff having been defeated, and letting themselves be drawn into a rut. Because maybe they can spring some upsets, and maybe things won't go so smoothly for Australia. Maybe Chris Rogers, playing his final series, might then be playing with one eye on the end; maybe Steve Smith will have problems up at number three against the Dukes ball, and maybe Mitchell Johnson will struggle again when it's in his hand. Maybe the players aren't quite at their best right now: Haddin has struggled for form recently, and Watson looks set to be preferred over Mitchell Marsh when the latter is perhaps more deserving of a place. The retirement of Ryan Harris for Australia is also far from ideal, having been such a brilliant performer who will be greatly missed from the international stage. Maybe then there are the odd chinks in the armour for England to poke at.

Or maybe I'm desperately clutching at straws. I have a lot of hopes for this team - maybe they're inexperienced and unproven, but there is a raw talent there. They won't find it easy and they will lose games - but I really hope the press don't hound them when they do because it is a work in progress (I have been as critical as any in the past, but this is their greatest test yet). And if they do play well, they might just sneak something out of it. As unlikely as it might seem, I don't think it's completely out of the question. The optimism has found its way in.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Ashes & Me

Thursday, 2 July 2015
"The aim of English cricket is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia."
Whenever the Ashes rolls around we hear a lot of quotes like these, this one coming from legendary spin bowler Jim Laker. It gives us that sense of the romance and the history of the series, the emphasis put on these contests against Australia. It's the series that captures the public imagination more than any other, the victory savoured the most, and the loss that hurts the hardest. We hear the years of history, the tales of those great series and those great players, again and again. Bradman, Botham, and Warne; Bodyline, 1981, and 2005 being just a few examples. Even in just the last fifteen years, as far back as my memory can go, it's been a rollercoaster ride.

My first memory of watching cricket is the Ashes. It was 2001 and the series was already lost after just three games, being part of those long, long win-less years for England. Tests won were often mere consolations after the prize was already out of sight, Australia living their glory years and being dominant across the world stage. But consolation or not, the fourth was a magnificent test match. A total of 315 chased down thanks to 173* from Mark Butcher, his finest innings for England. We jumped on the sofa in celebration; a win over Australia was a rare event, after all. And for my seven-year-old self, a love of cricket was born.

But I've already had a fair share of Ashes misery. The next series in Australia brought another 4-1 thumping, and both 2006/7 and 2013/4 saw whitewashes. While 2002/3 might have been expected - Australia still at their peak and England having some of the worst possible luck with injuries - the whitewashes certainly weren't. Though England had struggled in the wake of the glory of 2005, it was never supposed to go as badly as it went in 2006, when it took just one ball - that ball from Harmison - and the tone was set. And when the second test at Adelaide saw the turnaround from a first innings score over 500 to a second innings collapse for 129, there was no way out. I didn't think a defeat could hurt more than that one, that it could get any worse, until 2013/4. The tour that became a brutal destruction of a team that won 3-0 just months before. A team with most of the players who had triumphed in 2010/11 and became the best test team in the world. It wasn't just a whitewash, it was a demolition job. Just a year and a half later only the very barest bones remain, and the scars still show.

As much as sport can always pain you, and losing to the fiercest rivals hurts the most, there are those moments that make it all worthwhile. Even if they are just tiny, fleeting moments of glory like that one game in 2001. 2005 was the big one of course, the first win in my lifetime and one that saw cricket, just for a few weeks, capture the imagination of a whole nation. I have so many vivid memories, of each and every test: rushing home from school to catch the first day of the series, only to miss Australia's innings and watch England fall to 21/5; my mum hiding in the other room, unable to watch on the last day at Edgbaston; having the radio with us on the beach as England tried to get that final wicket at Old Trafford; Gary Pratt being elevated to hero status after running out Ponting; running to check the score during break-times at school during the fifth. And that high afterwards: England had finally done it, Australia finally bettered, and the optimism of an eleven year old convinced we would now be the best in the world.

2010/11 was also special, being able to win away from home and being able to do it so well. It was the time when England had reached the top of their game, everyone contributing in some way. There was even that feeling that it might not all be real, with scores like 517/1, three innings victories, and Australia bowled out for under 100 on Boxing Day. It was the shining centrepiece of three Ashes wins in a row: wedged between 2009, the start of something with new heroes like Swann rising and old heroes like Flintoff giving their final show; and 2013, looking like a dominant win on the face of it, but perhaps glossing over the cracks that had started to form.

Yes, there will always be that something special about the Ashes. Sometimes there can be too much emphasis put upon it, and maybe the money makers try to push that even further; but at the end of the day, it will always be prized as the pinnacle. The one people want to win most of all. It's the series that forms legends: Bodyline, the Invincibles, Botham's Ashes, the ball of the century. It has the history, the romance about it, the extra edge and spice. As the hype machine moves to full force as the days draw nearer, I will just lap it all up: every montage, every part of that phoney war before the real action happens. It's time to let the drama unfold.
In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882.
The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. 
Two Short Legs © 2014